East Side Block Isn’t Keen
On Getting the Shaft
A wide cross-section of troops is mobilizing to prevent the residents of-and drivers on-East 54th Street from being shafted, quite literally.
The city has chosen the block between First and Second avenues as the favored site for an approximately 18-month construction project to build a shaft to the new water tunnel currently being built some 60 stories under Manhattan. Local residents, governmental representatives and Community Board 6 alike are outraged that the city has selected this site, which they claim would be especially susceptible to grave dangers during the construction process. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection, though, has been thus far unmoved by the attempts to propose alternate sites, and hopes to begin construction in July 2006.
The project would take what is currently a designated through street (and therefore highly trafficked) and occupy it almost entirely with a 240-foot-long, 39-foot-wide construction area that is to be surrounded by 10-foot-high concrete walls. Consequently, there would only be room for a five-foot-wide sidewalk on either side and an 11-foot traffic lane to the south of the construction. Board 6 members learned at their Dec. 10 meeting that a fire truck needs 23 feet of clear horizontal space in which to place outriggers if it is to safely extend a ladder. Further, some have said that firefighters would have trouble entering the buildings to the north of the construction, and that such a narrow sidewalk bordered by a high wall will not only invite criminal activities, but will likely be inadequately lit and difficult to traverse for the area’s many seniors. These and other safety concerns led the board’s safety, environment and human-rights committee to vote in favor of a resolution demanding that the D.E.P. research a safer site for the shaft.
But such a request trembles meekly in the face of what is the largest non-defense capital project in the Western hemisphere, one which former Mayor Rudy Giuliani has referred to as an underground Great Wall of China. The city began constructing this third water tunnel in 1970 in order to protect the city’s water supply in the event of failures in the two existing tunnels. By approximately 2005, the tunnel will link all five boroughs to the Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers. In August 2002, construction began on the U-shaped Manhattan section of the tunnel, a nine-mile stretch that runs from West 60th Street and Amsterdam Avenue down to the Holland Tunnel, and up the East Side toward Central Park. Ten shafts at key points-such as the one under construction at Ninth Avenue and 13th Street that met such fierce Board 2 opposition-must be constructed in order to bring the water to consumers.
“I’ve never seen a city agency be as unresponsive to city concerns as D.E.P. has been so far,” Sarra Hale-Stern, community liaison to New York State Senator Liz Krueger, told Board 6. Ms. Hale-Stern, along with Assemblyman Jonathan Bing and a representative from City Council Speaker Gifford Miller’s office, were all in attendance to speak out against the shaft site. The three offices have been on the case for months now, exchanging letters and meeting with D.E.P. Commissioner Chris Ward-with little success. Ms. Hale-Stern later told The Observer that while her office first suspected the opposition to the 54th Street location was just another NIMBY issue, they have since learned that it is, in fact, grounded in very real safety concerns.
The residents of the Connaught Towers at 300 East 54th Street have employed an engineering consultant, Samuel Schwartz, who in the past has successfully argued the D.E.P. out of other proposed shaft sites. He researched and proposed 15 alternate locations to the city, among them East 59th Street, near the ramp to the 59th Street Bridge, primarily because it affects so few residents. But the D.E.P. has rejected all of his proposals-unfairly and without substantial rationale, the opposition claims. The department says it is sticking to the 54th Street site based on a variety of criteria, which include a required 8,000 square feet of open space; the need to be near Third Avenue; the preference for using city-owned property; the necessity to place the shaft within the water “pressure zone” that runs up the East Side between 33rd and 57th streets; and the need to finish all the shafts by 2008.
When contacted by The Observer , Senator Krueger said, “I’m not opposed to the water tunnel-obviously it’s happening, we need it, it’s a good thing. And apparently we need a shaft somewhere on the East Side. Nonetheless, it seems to me that it is incumbent upon the D.E.P. to be able to 1) explain to the community why it’s making the decisions that it’s making, and 2) [demonstrate] that its decisions are not inconsistent with those of other equally important city agencies.”
When The Observer asked D.E.P. spokesman Charles Sturcken for a reaction to the community members’ opposition to the site and their claims that the D.E.P. is being inflexible, he retorted: “Do they like the water? Without water, there is no New York City.” He also said that it was a mystery to him why this site has attracted the most opposition of any they’ve proposed.
Stadium Seems Imminent,
But Board Adopts
Long before the New York Jets score their first touchdown in Manhattan, plans for an interception are already underway.
Last spring, the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association presented an alternate development plan to the Department of City Planning for the proposed 70,000-seat stadium that the Jets hope to build at Hudson Yards. Their alternative: don’t build the stadium at all. On Dec. 3, Community Board 4-which until this point had not officially articulated an alternative to the rezoning and redevelopment of the neighborhood-unanimously adopted the HKNA proposal, formally staking claim on a different future for Hell’s Kitchen, one they say will satisfy development needs while, at the same time, preserving the community.
“[The HKNA plan] allows us to go out and engage in dialogue [with city and state officials and community groups],” said Anna Levin, board member and co-chairwoman of the Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Land Use Committee, speaking to The Observer . “We weren’t able to do this until we presented the Hell’s Kitchen plan.” Nonetheless, with reports that a tentative agreement between the city, the state and the football team may be released as soon as January, to some the board’s adoption of a position has the appearance of being little more than a token gesture.
According to the city’s plan, spearheaded by Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Daniel Doctoroff, a total of $800 million from the Jets and $600 million from the city and state will fund the $1.4 billion stadium. Seated on the M.T.A.-owned Hudson railyards at 33rd Street and 11th Avenue, the stadium will be shadowed by a dense spine of commercial and residential towers stretching north to 38th Street and south to 35th Street between 10th and 11th avenues. Additionally, a commercial corridor of towers will stretch from Madison Square Garden on Seventh Avenue west to the Hudson River. The No. 7 subway line, which currently terminates at Times Square, will extend south to 34th Street, and the state-owned Jacob K. Javits center would enjoy a northward expansion. The project, whose total cost is estimated at $5 billion, may begin as soon as 2005.
“The alternative plan is a lot more neighborhood-friendly,” said Vera Lightstone, a HKNA member, in introducing the scheme to the board on Dec. 3. “The city plan blocks a lot of community access to the waterfront.”
The HKNA plan, which was submitted as part of the Environmental Impact Statement, places the bulk of the residential and commercial towers in the Hudson railyards, where the stadium is slated to go. The Javits Center would expand south rather than north, keeping 39th Street open to river access. A 10-acre park, directly linked to the Hudson River Park, would cover the roof of the expanded center. The plan doesn’t include an expanded No. 7 line for the immediate future; instead, it would rely on a new bus line. According to Daniel Gutman, who led the presentation, the alternate plan would be less expensive than the current city plan.
But the city sees serious problems with the HKNA scheme. “The stadium is a fundamental part of the Hudson yards plan,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of the Manhattan office of the Department of City Planning. “The [HKNA] alternative doesn’t meet the overall goals and objectives of the project. It doesn’t give the Javits Center the expansion that it so desperately needs.”
Mr. Chakrabarti is also concerned that the HKNA plan, contrary to its claim, actually provides less waterfront access than the city plan, which proposes two waterfront esplanades. “They have a park on top of the convention center, but that doesn’t do you any good in getting to the water. It exacerbates the problem of waterfront access.”
Members of the community have their own concerns about the proposal. “It’s bogus,” John Fisher of the Clinton Special District Coalition told The Observer . “It’s basically the Doctoroff plan without the stadium.” Furthermore, Mr. Fisher, a longtime resident, doesn’t think the 40 million square feet of redevelopment is necessary for the community. “There’s the assumption that the West Side is broken. [But] there doesn’t need to be massive change. We’d like to be left alone.”
Mr. Chakrabarti disagrees about the impact on the Hell’s Kitchen “community.” “There are less than 150 legal residences,” he said of the Hudson yards vicinity. “Putting big buildings there will not alter the neighborhood, because on those blocks there is no neighborhood.”
Despite community hesitation, Ms. Levin feels that the HKNA plan closely represents the board’s position and will help in their fight against the stadium. And despite the fact that many say the arrival of the stadium is imminent, Ms. Levin remains optimistic. “The stadium is a misuse of a prime development site and will saddle us with other problems,” she said. “If we can get a good public discussion going, we think that it won’t happen.”
Jan. 6: Board 7, American Bible Society, 1865 Broadway, 7 p.m., 212-362-4008.